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HERALD ALL-AREA WINTER SPORTS AWARDS: Head of the Class

The 2011-12 Albany Herald Willie Boston Players and Coaches of the Year winners are, from left, Albany High boys basketball coach Archie Chatmon, Albany High guard Tim Pierce, Westover guard DyTiesha Dunson and Westover girls basketball coach Lewis Smith. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

The 2011-12 Albany Herald Willie Boston Players and Coaches of the Year winners are, from left, Albany High boys basketball coach Archie Chatmon, Albany High guard Tim Pierce, Westover guard DyTiesha Dunson and Westover girls basketball coach Lewis Smith. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

If ever there was a two-fisted slam dunk, it’s this one.

Tim Pierce, Albany High.

DyTiesha Dunson, Westover High.

Anyone who paid any attention to this year’s amazing and electrifying high school basketball season knows why those names are here in The Herald today.

Pierce was the clear choice to win The Herald’s Willie Boston Player of the Year in boys basketball, and Dunson, the heart and soul of girls basketball at Westover, where Boston was a legend, was a runaway winner as the girls Willie Boston Player of the Year.

Enough said.

And yet there is so much more to these two stars, two kids who define their programs. Dunson has been a star for four years and the team leader for the last three at Westover, where she has led the Lady Patriots in every offensive category.

Coaches from every girls team in this part of Georgia rarely call her Dunson. They just say DyTiesha.

“We know all about DyTiesha,” said Washington County coach Sug Parker, a day before his defending state champion team met Westover in the state playoffs.

Everyone knows about DyTiesha.

“She does everything for us,'” Westover coach Lewis Smith said.

Pierce, meanwhile, was the quiet storm, brewing and waiting to arrive. He was coming, and everyone at Albany High knew when that day came, basketball for the Indians would change.

So what happened? Albany had the best regular-season record in the long and storied history of the basketball program, climbed to the No. 3 ranking in the state poll and was the top-ranked team in Southwest Georgia in The Herald's Fab Five Poll. The Indians drove all the way to the Elite 8 round of the Class AA state playoffs.

Pierce was at the heart of it all, leading the way with some memorable 30-point nights, taking over in big games when Albany needed him the most. The guard with the amazing shooting touch averaged 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists, and seemed to be able to do whatever he had to do to help his team win.

“He had a fantastic year,” Albany High coach Archie Chatmon said. “He's one of the best I've ever coached in one of the best seasons. He plays the whole game, and he’s a joy to coach. He had those 30-point games, and quite a few when he scored 28 or 29.”

All this from a player, who always shied away from the spotlight.

“Tim was reluctant to be the star,” said Chatmon, who knew when Pierce was a freshman that he had a special player on his team. “It was just a matter of time for him to accept his role as the best player on the team. He would rather have someone else shoot the ball, and he had to realize that he's the one who needs to shoot it.”

Pierce was a four-year starter and it was evident he was an emerging star when he helped lead Albany to the Sweet 16 round of the state playoffs as a junior. He came back as a senior and soared along with his team.

“It was more of a maturing thing for me,” Pierce said. “At first I was a little scared to play (that role as team leader), but everyone kept egging me on and saying 'You have to step up.' So I had to.

“In game situations, I see a guy open and I'll give it to him. It took me a while to realize I was the one who was supposed to take the shots. I was like that even back in middle school and ever since my freshman year. It's something I grew into.”

Pierce, a quiet and serious student in the classroom and student of the game, honestly never wanted to be a star.

“I just see myself as a team player,” he said. “I never put myself above any of my teammates. I don't like being the center of attention.”

He couldn't help it.

There were games when Pierce simply took over — and those moments always seemed to come in the biggest games.

“The great thing is his big games came against big opponents,” Chatmon said. “He's a big-game player. He was reluctant to do that at the beginning of his career. He started playing that way the second half of last season when he was a junior, and we had the big run to the Sweet 16.

“This year we had such a good team, a team that really epitomized team basketball, and there were times we needed him to put us on his shoulders, and he did.”

For Pierce, it was just the desire to win.

“I was just exerting myself and playing harder,” he said of those times when he took over games. “I just wanted us to win, and I was just playing.”

Pierce does make it look easy, and so did the Indians, who were rolling when they were upset in the playoffs by Vidalia on a night when everything seemed to go wrong for Albany, which had to wear warm-ups instead of the regular basketball jerseys because of a mix-up that Chatmon took the blame for, saying he forgot to bring both sets of uniforms to Savannah.

“I feel like we had a good season and a good run,” Pierce said. “We could have done better. I'm never satisfied. I could have done better.

“That loss (to Vidalia), it really hurt me. It hurt a lot. It hurt me deep. I kept my cool on the court during the game, but there were some bad calls in the game. But I never complained. And we had to change uniforms. That was kind of messed up.”

Pierce hasn't made any college visits, but Chatmon said there are several schools interested, including Clemson and Florida State.

Pierce, who has a 3.5 GPA, wants to major in marine biology and that will be the deciding factor on where he plays next season.

Dunson has already signed a basketball scholarship to play at Division I Florida Gulf Coast University, which made it to the NCAA Tournament this season.

She signed early and then went out and had an incredible season to cap off a career no one at Westover will ever forget. On the night she scored 35 points against Tift County, assistant coach Vanite Moore said, “It's about time for us to retire her jersey.”

They will at some point. But Dunson was too busy wearing it this season and averaging 22 points a night. She also averaged seven rebounds and led the team in assists with six a game.

She was a star on a senior-led team as a freshman, and she took over the team as a sophomore, leading Westover to 73 wins over the past three seasons. Dunson wasn't just a star on the court, she helped the younger kids on the team, and every player at Westover looked up to her.

It will be difficult to imagine Westover without Dunson, who helped Westover's young team rip off a 23-0 start that had the entire state looking at Northwest Albany. The Lady Patriots finished the season at 25-2, losing to rival Monroe, which snapped the streak, and state No. 1 Washington County in the playoffs.

“It was a good year,” Dunson said. “We had the winning streak, and that was quite an accomplishment. I'll always remember that. The streak sticks out in my head the most.

“When we lost to Monroe, that was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to lose to Washington County in the Elite 8, but the loss to Monroe stands out even more to me. It was a rival game and it broke the streak.”

For Dunson, it was just another year of leading the way, only this year she had three new starters — all sophomores and freshmen — along with fellow Herald Super 6er Ieshia Young. And few thought Westover would have a good season. But Dunson just got better.

“I think I’ve improved my game a lot since my ninth-grade year, and this year I developed my outside shot more, and I was seeing the court more,” Dunson said. “It was a pretty good year, but we always wanted to win state.”

That was the goal during her career — a career that defined Westover for the last three years.

“I remember when coach Smith put me out in the starting lineup as a freshman. I was surprised. He told me, ‘We have two seniors, but just play your game and your time will come,’ ” she said.

"I knew early on that it would be my time, and when I was a sophomore (coach Smith) knew I could handle it. He would talk all the time about what he wanted me to do. He had faith in me. He was proud of me. I saw how much faith he had in me, and that made me believe in myself. If he believed in me like that, then I figured I must be something special.''

She was, and so was Pierce — two players the Good Life City won’t soon forget.


ALBANY'S CHATMON, WESTOVER'S SMITH EARN WILLIE BOSTON COACH OF YEAR HONORS:

Lewis Smith and Archie Chatmon, two men who have shared a lifetime of coaching memories in the Good Life City, will never forget 2012 — a season both say was special for all the right reasons.

Smith defied the critics and the odds, and after losing three starters — including two girls who left to play at other schools — still had a remarkable year at Westover. Smith was an easy choice as The Herald’s Willie Boston Girls Coach of the Year.

Chatmon says he will never forget this season because of his team’s incredible record and the fact his kids played so well together — the epitome of team ball.

In many ways Chatmon is the epitome of the team coach, and he was also a no-brainer to win The Herald’s Willie Boston Coach of the Year award in boys basketball.

As the two men posed for a picture this week, there was that look between them.

“We go way back, so it was kind of funny (when we met for the Coach of the Year picture),’’ Smith said. “Archie gave me my first paying job in 1986. I was his assistant when we had those great teams at Albany High in the ’90s.’’

Albany was a hotbed for basketball back then, and the school still produces some of the best high school basketball in the state. Westover’s girls were ranked No. 2 in the state for most of the season, and Chatmon’s team was ranked No. 3, while the Lady Pats held down The Herald Fab 5 Poll’s No. 1 spot all season, and the Indians were No. 1 for most of it. Either team could have won the state title, but both lost after making deep runs in the playoffs.

Chatmon’s Indians produced the best regular-season record in Albany High history, finishing 26-3 after a heartbreaking loss to Vidalia in the Elite 8 round of the Class AA playoffs. But it’s not the record that Chatmon, who has been at Albany High for 28 years, including 26 as the head coach, will remember.

“This one stands out because of the team,’’ he said. “If there is one thing that is amazing to me it’s how these guys came together as a team. We always try to play team ball, but this team was amazing, especially on defense. We held teams to 45 points a game. That’s incredible, and it’s because they played as a team.’’

Chatmon had two of the best offensive linemen in SW Georgia in Jontavious Morris and Roscoe Byrd come off the bench and play inside — a fact he relishes.

“Every team we played, we didn’t have better athletes than they had, but everybody played their role on this team,’’ Chatmon said. “They were going to play Albany High basketball. They bought into it and executed as a team. We had two 300-pound football players out there playing their role, accepting their roles and doing what they needed to do to help us win. We had individual weaknesses, but we overcame them with our team play. That’s what I loved about this team.’’

Chatmon was pretty emotional when his kids won the Region 1-AA title for the first time since 2005 as he praised his senior class, calling that group “very special.’’

“We knew when they were freshmen that this was a special group, and it validated them when we won the region championship,’’ Chatmon said. “It’s extremely gratifying. When they were freshmen, we lost seven players who left and they had to play as freshmen. And when they were sophomores, four guys left the team. We went through some battles, and they persevered.

“I saw in the summer that this was going to be a good team. But I never dreamed we would be this good. I missed on this one. Usually my assessment is pretty good, but I missed with this team. I remember in the middle of the season when we were beating good teams and winning I told the other coaches I was worried. I said, ‘This is scary.’ I thought we were peaking too soon. But we actually got better. All that we went through (for four years), all that pain. This was a special season, a special team.’’

For Smith, the critics and doubters lined up early. No one believed Westover could sustain success. After all, two of the Lady Pats’ key starters left for other schools, and another starter graduated. Smith had two of the top players in SW Georgia in DyTiesha Dunson and Ieshia Young and nothing but sophomores and freshmen to fill the gaps — not only on the starting five, but the bench as well.

“Even the people at the school didn’t expect too much,’’ Smith said. “We had to start two sophomores and a freshman, and everyone was saying we looked too thin. People were trying to prepare me for the worst.’’

Instead, Westover answered the critics by ripping off a school-record 23-game winning streak. The Lady Patriots didn’t lose until the final week of the regular season when Monroe pulled off the upset. They went to the postseason with a 24-1 record.

“I was glad to see the streak end,’’ Smith said. “It was becoming a burden. If we would have had an older team, (a senior-filled team), it would have been different. Seniors would have had the swagger to handle the streak and pull it off. But I think it got to the younger girls. We kind of got consumed with the streak. I think it was unnerving the younger girls, having to live up to it.’’

The streak, however, ended the doubters and helped define one of Westover’s best seasons in the school’s history.

“The streak was unexpected,’’ said Smith, who watched his young kids fill their roles and watched his team pull out one win after another in a variety of ways. “Nobody thought we would fill in those missing pieces of the girls who left, but it just fell together. The blend between the younger girls and the older ones (Dunson and Young) just came together and we had real good chemistry.

“That’s what I will remember from this season, the way it came together for us. It was a lot of work by the players and the coaches. But it’s a season that stands out. It was a little more rewarding because it was unexpected.’’